Upsurge 2.0: Farmers Take To The Streets

On Friday, as the sun set in large parts of India, the day-long farmers’ protests and Bharat Bandh passed off peacefully with no police violence, lathi-charge or teargas reported, no mass arrests or detentions, and no forcible eviction of farmers, many of whom had blocked highways and roads, and railway tracks and trains, albeit peacefully, and in a collective, resolute show of non-violence. Even while the so-called Godi media chose to ignore it, social media was replete with images and commentaries of the mass protests all over the country; significantly in the South, in cities like Hyderabad and Bangalore, where thousands thronged the streets in militant non-violent protests against three agriculture-related bills.

The Centre in the recently-concluded Monsoon Session of Parliament passed three bills rather arbitrarily: the Farmers Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020; the Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement on Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020 and; he Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020.

Farmers believe these bills will have long-lasting and negative effects on farming as they will give a free run to big industrialists, global sharks, cartels and multinationals. Powerful hoarders will have a field day, the minimum support price of farm produce will be manipulated pushing the farmers to abject starvation, debt and total dependence, and all kinds of dubious and sleazy market forces will be allowed to capture Indian agriculture.

The belligerent BJP-led central government, who chose to care little for dialogue or consensus in pushing the three bills, and which was so sure of its absolute and one-dimensional power, now not only finds itself on a sticky wicket – it is clearly on the back foot.

WATCH: ‘Farmers Will Become Bonded Labours Of The Rich’

Indeed, the street has once again become a metaphor for non-violent protests, for the first time since the lockdown, which was preceded by massive peaceful protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and Citizen Registry (NRC) that rocked the nation with demonstrations and prolonged sit-ins across small towns and big cities for more than three months during winter last year and thereafter. Surely, after the massive Shaheen Bagh protests, which were replicated across the nation, and with the farmers coming on the streets physically, breaking all forms of collective phobia or the fear of a Police State, the use of the pandemic to crush democratic dissent can no more be used. The tide is rising again, this time with farmers in the lead.

On the first day of protests, the farmers’ life began earlier than most people in India, much before sunrise. There was fear that there could be a crackdown, especially in the states ruled by the BJP. Even now, there have been apprehensions that the central government, which has been rather uncompromising, might actually choose to crack down using the pandemic as an excuse, as it has done with peaceful dissenters against the CAA, which the protesters have condemned as discriminatory, communal and against the basic tenets of the secular Indian Constitution.

By morning most of Punjab was up in arms. Indeed, what found sharp resonance in Parliament earlier, especially in the Rajya Sabha, where the three bills were pushed by a voice vote in the din (with Rajya Sabha TV volume muted) and a division of vote was not allowed, and which the Opposition called as the murder of democracy, became resonant yet again on the streets all over India. Trains and highways were blocked but without any untoward incident.

At the Haryana-Punjab border, tractors blocked the roads even as ambulances and locals were allowed to move, and youngsters in thousands assembled in solidarity with the farmers. Punjab being the epicenter, the strong protests were spread across the state, with the farmers refusing to budge till the three bills are taken back, lock, stock and barrel, and the minimum support prices for farm produce legalized.

At the massive Nabha protests, again on railway tracks, men and women marched from long distances, to join in solidarity. A woman told BBC News (Hindi), “Narendra Modi tells his Mann ki Baat. So what about our Mann ki Baat? Another woman said, “The movement will be sharpened if the bills are not withdrawn. They are liars.”

The upsurge spread across the country, with thousands of rallies and dharnas. Farmers, workers, locals, trade unions, civil society organisations and students came out in hundreds of rallies in small towns and cities, in every state, holding red, green and other flags, marching in a disciplined and peaceful manner. ‘Standwithfarmers’ kept trending on social media. In Kolkata, the students of Jadavpur University marched through the streets singing songs in support of the farmers. There was overwhelming support for the agitation all over Bengal with the Left, the Congress and the ruling Trinamool Congress coming out in support.

The CPI-ML (Liberation), which is strong among the poor peasantry in Bihar, led protests across the state, led by its general secretary Dipankar Bhattacharya. The CPI (M) organized rallies in several parts of the country even as its national protests have been continuing since the last few weeks demanding the scrapping of the bills, Rs 7,500 in every bank account of jobless workers, food for the poor from the public distribution system, an end to the selling of public sector assets like the railways and airports, and the release of students, intellectuals, activists and peaceful protestors from prisons.

Surprisingly, the CPI (M) organized massive and militant protests in Tripura, especially in Agartala, whereby thousands of people came out and broke the physical barricades enacted by the police at several points. People trickled in streams across locations, very angry and vociferous, though the clashes with the cops were never violent with the police giving way to the surging crowds.

ALSO READ: Can BJP Take On Punjab Farmers?

Several highways were blocked, including the important Bombay-Ahmedabad highway, where hundreds of women of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), blocked traffic. Ashok Dhawale, president of the CPI(M)-led All India Kisan Sabha, came to the site to give a solidarity speech. Dhawale, indeed, was the leader of the massive march of lakhs of farmers to Mumbai earlier from the remotest interiors of Maharashtra, including Adivasi areas, when the BJP government was ruling in Mumbai.

That long march of kisans with a sea of red banners struck a chord across the nation with round-the-clock coverage, including on social and international media, with the people of Mumbai coming out in total support. Indeed, the farmers deliberately chose the route and timing in such a manner so as to not to disturb the school students in their exams, or the locals in their daily affairs. Doctors, students, housewives had rushed in then with food, medicine and even chappals. Mumbaikars showered flowers on the annadaatas from their balconies and doors when they marched through the lanes. AIKS said 50,000 farmers protested across Maharashtra on Friday.

Over two dozen farmers’ organizations backed by scores of political parties have joined the protests. The Bharat Bandh was coordinated by the All India Farmers Union (AIFU), Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU), All India Kisan Mahasangh (AIKM), among others, with the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) leading the protests. Ten central trade unions, all Left students’ organizations, joined the strike. Farmers’ bodies from Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra called for a shutdown. The RSS-affiliated organizations like the Bhartiya Kisan Sangh and Swadeshi Jagran Manch did not take part.

Clearly, these mass protests are now likely to resurrect a new wave of peaceful resistance in civil society and by the Opposition parties, especially against the daily hounding and arrests of students, professors, intellectuals, journalists and dissenters, particularly from the Muslim community, on fabricated and flimsy charges.

Yes Bank Debacle & Crony Capitalism

The recent debacle of the Indian private sector bank, Yes Bank, whose board was suspended and superseded by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), once again brings into sharp focus the extent and depth to which crony capitalism continues to prevail in the country’s economy.

Yes Bank was founded in 2004 by Rana Kapoor and his brother-in-law, the late Ashok Kapur. Early this month, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), registered a criminal case against Kapoor, who was the CEO of Yes Bank; Dewan Housing Finance Ltd. (DHFL), a non-banking financial services company; and its promoter, Kapil Wadhawan. The CBI charged them with criminal conspiracy, cheating and corruption under the Indian Penal Code and the Prevention of Corruption Act.

ALSO READ: How To Pull Up Indian Economy

The allegations are that between April and June 2018, Yes Bank subscribed or invested Rs 3700 crores in DHFL’s short-term debentures. This financial assistance subsequently turned into non-performing assets as the bank was unable to recover the funds. More seriously, the allegations are that in lieu of the amount extended to DHFL, a company, Do it Urban Ventures, promoted by Kapoor’s three daughters, and received kickbacks in the form of loans amounting to around Rs 600 crores. In other words, the CBI alleges that Kapoor and DHFL entered into a conspiratorial quid pro quo: DHFL got the assistance (that have now turned into bad loans) and he and his family benefited from the kickbacks.

Rana Kapoor in custody of Enforcement Directorate

The agency has alleged that Rana Kapoor extended financial assistance to DHFL to get substantial undue benefit for himself and his family members via companies held by Kapoor and his family. On March 5, India’s central bank, the Reserve Bank of India, announced that it had suspended and superseded the board of Yes Bank. Customers were prevented from withdrawing more than Rs 50000 from their accounts and rating agencies downgraded the bank’s core bonds.

Yes Bank’s debacle turns the focus sharply on the continued prevalence of crony capitalism in India’s economy: an unholy nexus between banks, financial institutions (FIs), and business enterprises. Banks and FIs—and not only privately owned ones—in India are known to have cosy relationships with promoters of large and medium sized Indian companies and quid pro quo arrangements of the sort that Kapoor and Yes Bank are accused of are not uncommon. Rather, it is quite the opposite. Examples of misuse of bank funds are galore in the Indian economy.

One high-profile case is that of liquor baron Vijay Mallya who is currently in the UK while the Indian government is trying to get him extradited so that he can face investigation into charges levelled against him. Mallya is accused of misusing around Rs 9,000 crore (US$1.3 billion), which are loans that his companies, including a now-defunct airline that he started, took from 17 Indian banks. The allegations are that Mallya siphoned off these funds to 40 other companies that he controls around the world.

ALSO READ: Nirav Modi Arrested In London

In another headline-grabbing case in 2018, the CBI began an investigation into Nirav Modi, a high-profile Indian jeweller, on allegations that he and his partners defrauded the Punjab National Bank of Rs 28,000 crore, which he is alleged to have siphoned overseas by fraudulently obtaining letters of undertaking for making payments to overseas suppliers. Modi is absconding and is believed to be in the US even as the Interpol is looking for him.

More recently, in December 2019, another high-profile executive, Jagdish Khattar, the former managing director of Maruti Udyog Ltd., India’s largest carmaker, was booked by the CBI for charges against him of cheating the Punjab National Bank of Rs 110 crore. That case is still being investigated although Khattar has not been arrested.

These few examples are really the tip of the iceberg. Nefarious deals between banks and influential entrepreneurs abound in India. Not long ago, a private sector steel company was embroiled in a similar controversy when a partly government-controlled financial institution was believed to be lending it vast sums of money although past loans taken by the company had turned into non-performing assets.

The curious paradox about such cases is that in many of the cases, the authorities, including investigative agencies, wake up when it is already too late. In Yes Bank’s case, the RBI has been issuing warnings about financial inconsistencies in the bank’s reports. Doubts about Mallya’s ability to run his airline and manage his finances have been floating around long before he fled India.

The other, more disheartening, aspect of all this is the hagiographical treatment that the media have meted out to some of these controversial promoters and businessmen. Vijay Mallya, now 64, has had countless laudatory cover stories or “puff pieces” about him. Rana Kapoor, an aggressive publicity seeker, has found similar success with the Indian media. Jagdish Khattar was routinely lionised by India’s business press during his stint as managing director of Maruti between 2002 and 2007.

The truth is that India’s institutions, particularly in the financial sector, are prone to misuse—either because of the clout of powerful corporate borrowers or because of complicit bank officials, or both. India’s government has various laws, organisations and agencies that have been established to prevent financial fraud. Yet, with regular frequency, shocking instances of brazen misuse of the financial system come to light. What is needed is a will to break the cronyism that plagues the nexus between financiers and their corporate clients. And when frauds come to light, swift dispensation of justice could work as a deterrent.

Mining Companies Safety

Mining Companies Must Adhere To Safety Norms

Companies anywhere engaged in digging earth on a very large scale for the purpose of taking out a variety of natural resources from iron ore to bauxite to copper ore have earned a bad name for their rapaciousness. In pursuit of profits, there is nothing they will not to do, from damaging the environment to leaving workers and people inhabiting the areas around mines in bad health. The greed driven mining groups will not, however, be found short in proclaiming from the rooftop of how dearly they embrace safety first and corporate governance.

Absurdities like asking visitors in head offices to hold on handrails become glaring when on January 25 a mine accident in Brazil claimed more than 350 lives and polluted streams and large tracts of farmland. No wonder this and last year’s disaster involving hugely big bauxite mine operation in the same Latin American country are instances of roughshod capitalism let loose.

Why Brazil alone, crony capitalism will prosper in any country where politicians and bureaucrats have discretionary power to dispense favour by way of sanctioning long-term leases of deposits of natural resources.

Fortunately, India did rid itself from mines centred crony capitalism – remember the coal scam relating to “inefficient” allocation of blocks to both public and private sector companies smacking of corruption during the UPA regime – when in 2015 with the amendment of mines and minerals (development and regulation) Act of 1957, the first come first served and discretionary mechanism for grant of mineral resources was replaced by a transparent and competitive auction process.

Two things have happened following the Act amendment – first, the competitive bidding for any resources under the gavel is fetching the government good revenues and second, mine owners are now paying a lot more royalty and other taxes to support local area development and exploration of new resources.

But what about the continent of Africa which holds all kinds of mineral resources in abundance claiming major attention of all countries, including the US, in Europe and specially China with the world’s largest ownership of metals making capacity? It is no wonder that China, which in the past two decades built enormous steel, aluminium and copper capacity allowing it to have half or more than half of world production in several metals will in its drive to secure raw materials security covet resources in Africa.

Nothing wrong in that. Even while China is the world’s largest mining nation, it is facing rapid depletion of its own mineral resources compelled as it is to make enormous supplies to local industries. The world’s second largest economy which nurses ambition to overtake the US is already found in the red zone in terms of natural resources reserves to production ratio.

China set its eyes on Africa ahead of others in the early years of the current millennium with a strategy called ‘two resources, two markets’ that saw both public and private enterprises scouring every nation in the continent with rich mineral resources irrespective of political regime therein. Rapid progress by Chinese groups in minerals assets acquisition using fair but more of foul means has invited criticism that without Beijing’s blessings government owned companies specially could not have indulged in corrupt practices to gain advantages.

In August 2017, a former Guinean cabinet minister who migrated to the US was given a seven year jail sentence in that country for giving mining rights to an unnamed Chinese conglomerate for an $8.5m bribe. Guinea is one of Africa’s poorest countries. So also Democratic Republic of Congo. Ignoring the frowns that they invite from all over the world, Chinese companies continue to brazen it out to tap into the continent’s energy and mineral resources to help feed its economic growth.

Strange though it may sound, a country which swears by communism has been caught promoting cronyism. When a mining company knows that it can buy favours by greasing the palm of the powers that be, expect it to cut corners on things like environment care, health of workers and people in mine adjoining habitations and disposal and safe keeping of mine wastes.

One example will illustrate how existence of crony capitalism creates an environment where a miner will not hesitate to drop its guard even on safety issue. In one of the worst tailings tragedies in history, a dam holding sludge of a mine owned by the world’s largest iron ore producer Vale in Minas Gerais state of Brazil breached in January resulting in a big human tragedy. What is highly distressing is that the tragedy occurred because of serious lapses in corporate governance at Vale. The company was forewarned last year that the dam had heightened risk of rupturing.

Not only this forewarning, Vale didn’t learn any lesson from the collapse of a tailings dam linked to a Brazilian iron ore mine in November 2015 that unleashed a tidal wave of mining waste that besides killing 19 people damaged river water and large tracts of farmland.

Managements of stock exchange listed big mining groups think it is enough to buy peace with shareholders by giving them large dividends and also rewarding them with share buyback at hefty premiums. But when accidents of the above types happen, the companies and also host countries become targets of global criticism. Image dented, market capitalisation of such companies falls. The mines remain shut for long leading to loss of production, revenues and profits.

Even then at regular intervals charade of mine accidents due to owners’ negligences followed by public protests, companies promising corrective actions and governments first making right noises and then letting the culprits off the hook with some penalties and compensation to victims keep on happening. It’s cronyism that always triumphs.

An accident that happened last year in the downstream of bauxite mines at the world’s largest alumina refinery Alunorte in Brazil owned by the Norwegian Norsk Hydro which promises “minimal footprint on environment and climate” in its mining and industrial activities and rigorous compliance with “applicable laws and regulations” has ramifications for India. This is because India is a major producer of bauxite, alumina and aluminium.

Aluminium is projected as an environment friendly metal mainly because of its perennial recyclability. But the dust generated in the process of excavation of bauxite unless foolproof arrangements for its mechanised suction are made will have serious health implications for workers and people in mine nearby villages. What is of bigger human concern is the safe storage of highly alkaline red mud generated as a by-product in the process of extraction of alumina from bauxite. Because of its high alkanility and also for containing traces of toxic heavy metals, the disposal and storage of red mud remain a massive challenge for alumina producers. Hopefully our National Aluminium Company, Hindalco and Vedanta do regular safety audit of the places where the alkaline by-product is stored.

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Can Gadkari Emerge As A Challenger To Modi?

achche din. Please don’t misinterpret what I say. There is no such achche din… Achche din is a belief, if you believe, it is there.” Last August, when the agitations for reservations in jobs and education were gathering strength, he observed: “Even if reservation is given, where are the jobs? Jobs in banks have shrunk because of technology. Government recruitment is frozen.” His target was not the agitators demanding reservations but the government. Falling employment, with official data as evidence, is now a major election issue. After the BJP lost three state assembly polls last December, he mused: “Success has many fathers but failure is an orphan as, when there is success, there will be a race to take credit, but, in case of failure, everybody will start pointing fingers at each other.” He added: “Leadership should have the vrutti (inclination) to own up defeats and failures. Loyalty of the leadership towards the organisation will not be proven till the time it owns up responsibility for defeat.” On December 24, 2018, he supposedly targeted BJP chief Amit Shah: “If I am the party president and my MPs and MLAs are not doing well, then who is responsible? I am.” As if endorsing Modi critics, he said: “Tolerance is the biggest asset of the Indian system. You can’t win elections only because you speak well… you might be a vidwan (learned person) but people may not vote for you. One who thinks he knows everything is mistaken — people should refrain from artificial marketing.” On Republic Day, in a no-name salvo at Modi-Shah, he said: “People like political leaders who show them dreams. But if those dreams are not fulfilled, the people will thrash these leaders.” He has praised two BJP ‘betes noires’— Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘vision’ and Indira Gandhi’s ‘decisiveness.’ In sum, he has emerged as the government/BJP’s senior-most dissident. His word carries considerable weight. Unsurprisingly, Congress leader P. Chidambaram notes: “He (Gadkari) has virtually called the prime minister a failed dream merchant and chided him for lacking in vrutti to own responsibility for defeat; he has accused the prime minister of being intolerant and one who indulges in artificial marketing. Worse, he has demanded accountability of a government of which he is a part, in defiance of the prime minister under whom he works and of Shah who leads the party he belongs to.” The most significant thing is that so far, RSS has not rebuked Gadkari. Modi and Shah, his supposed targets, have remained silent. Amidst BJP’s discernible discomfiture, nobody speaks. The discourse is one between Gadkari and his listeners, media included. It could be dismissed as here-say except for the polls barely two months away. It can’t but be taken seriously as Modi’s personal charisma and popularity are fading, despite being well ahead anyone in the Sangh firmament and outside, among the squabbling Opposition that is struggling to unite. Gadkari is not one of those disgruntled types holding on to ministerial post. He is not given to irresponsible talk. To be fair, he has used loaded language, but has never named anybody. His ishara, the pointer, is sufficient, and one has to be politically daft not to catch it. He has consistently denied that he aspires to be the prime minister. To be fair, again, he has complained of being quoted out of the context, but has not denied them, never blamed the media, like some of his colleagues. A brief note about who he is. From a well-off family with in interest in trade, industry and farming, Gadkari, 61, does not consider himself a career politician. A foodie (it shows on him, despite Bariatric surgery!) with an amiable persona, he is a persuasive talker in Marathi, English and Hindi, and a family man. Staying close to RSS headquarters in Nagpur, he began young and rose gradually within the Sangh. As Maharashtra’s Public Works Department Minister (1995-99) he constructed 60 flyovers in Mumbai, making the metropolis commutable. The Mumbai-Pune Expressway, India’s first six-lane concrete, high-speed, access controlled tolled expressway, was built in about two years. In 2010, the RSS anointed him as the BJP President. The party was in crisis after losing two parliamentary polls in 2004 and 2009.   Staying above Delhi leaders’ clique, he put the party in battle-shape. However, he was forced out in 2013 for alleged nepotism in family business dealings. Modi’s star was rising, but Gadkari preferred Sushma Swaraj. Unsurprisingly, when Maharashtra was won, Gadkari’s ambitions were dashed. Political lore is that “Narendra chose Devendra” — a younger Phadanvis, who shares Gadkari’s RSS affections and the Nagpur support base – hence a rival. Conflicting views persist on RSS silence: either it is unsure on how to restrain one of its key men or it wants to send a stern message to the Modi-Shah duo. With elections around, both possibilities could be damaging. Gadkari’s current stance is unprecedented in Sangh. In Sangh Parivar, the RSS picks and chooses people and issues. It has only one dictator – the Sarsangh Chalak. All bodies, including the BJP must — and have remained – subservient to it. The Atal Bihari Vajpayee-L K Advani duo did enjoy a measure of autonomy to run the government (1998-2004) they headed. No match to them, yet on top in the current situation, Modi-Shah have arguably enjoyed more of that autonomy because 1) the BJP has majority within the coalition government, 2) congruency in the working style and interests of Modi-Shah and 3) the RSS resolve to see the BJP in power, come what may. This last bit is threatened since the immense popularity of Modi is waning. There is widespread criticism that amidst social unrest among religious minorities and the oppressed classes, the economy has not done well on multiple fronts. The Modi-Shah style of functioning is under scrutiny, but seems unlikely to change. The party has mattered minimally. Modi alone is visible and remains the star campaigner. Shah’s party-management dovetails to Modi’s requirement and persona. Together, they have certainly won most elections, but the recent polls defeats pose a serious challenge. The moment of reckoning is drawing close as murmurs are growing among supporters. Some have changed sides of moved away. Oldest ally Shiv Sena, locked in a dog-fight to wrest seniority from BJP in Maharashtra, has cheekily demanded Gadkari be made the prime minister in lieu of its support (in effect, stop bickering). Sena is confident. Maharashtra matters as it elects the second highest number (48) of lawmakers after Uttar Pradesh (80). Unlike Modi-Shah, Gadkari is a Brahmin, and all but one RSS chiefs have been so. He has friends across the political divide. Many privately say they would prefer him over abrasive Modi-Shah whose penchant to ‘conquer’ India electorally alarms them. Accused of crony capitalism, Modi has alienated the business classes by moving against Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi and others. Gadkari, with his business/trade/farming background, could be welcomed by the corporate honchos. They note his show of courage to suggest that Vijay Mallya, the fugitive whose extradition from London is sought by the Modi Government to face criminal charges, is no criminal. Will it become Modi versus Gadkari after the election results in May? Which way the RSS tilts will be crucial for India. The writer can be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.com]]>